Debut BC author Collier set to make mark in world of crime
Deryn Collier has everything it takes to make it as a mystery writer. She’s got the talent, the drive, the (dark) imagination, a charming and warm personality, heck she’s even got a great writer’s name. But it’s Collier’s clear-eyed focus on the fulfillment of a promise she made to herself as a seven-year-old girl that ultimately sets her apart from the pack.
The advance reader copy of her debut novel, Confined Space (Simon & Schuster), arrives with a letter from the author that is about as heart-on-the-sleeve honest as you’ll find in a sea of published writers whose over-confidence in their work borders on narcissism. Collier, it turns out, wanted to be a writer since that summer she first read a Nancy Drew mystery. She dove in deep, got lost in the world of make believe, and emerged with what I like to call “the affliction”.
“I remember the distinct feeling - though I was not able to articulate it at that age - of wanting to create that experience for other people,” writes Collier.
But life has a way of happening, and Collier admits she let others douse her dreams with cold water. It wasn’t until many years after reading that first mystery that she was watching her children playing - being exactly who they were meant to be - and she stopped to ask herself a fundamental question: “Why had I stopped myself from being who and what I was born to be?”
I met Collier a few years ago at Bloody Words crime conference and immediately understood this woman had a plan. The plan had steps and stages, levels to be negotiated, items to be accomplished and crossed off a list. I immediately recognized and admired that fire burning in her. There was no doubt in my mind that I would one day hold her first published work in my hands.
A few pages into Confined Space you find yourself slipping effortlessly into the world of French Canadian ex–Canadian Forces commander Bern Fortin. The affable but complex Fortin has retired from the military with a walk-in closet full of ghosts from less-than-peaceful peacekeeping missions. In Fortin, Collier has created a believable character in that he hold his cards close to his chest but never veers toward macho male cliché. Bern Fortin seems like the uncle you love but wonder if you really know well enough, the one who sometimes remembers to send a birthday card, but in whom you’ve always sensed a sort of stoic strength perhaps belonging to a different era.
Fortin quits the army and takes on the job as coroner for a small mountain town in BC, obviously hopeful of slow days and slower nights. A workplace fatality at a local brewery offers Fortin his first foray into his role as coroner, and it offers Collier an opportunity to display her writing chops. The process, the environment, the life of a brewery worker is all rendered expertly so that you can smell the hops and toasted barley and almost taste the end product. Collier does for breweries what writer Grant Buday did for bakeries in his stellar but too-little-known novel White Lung.
Fortin’s routine death investigation quickly morphs into something much darker as the dead worker’s girlfriend is discovered in a field with clear signs that she was abused and tortured. Aided by the guilt-ridden brewery safety officer, Evie Chapelle, Fortin begins a dogged pursuit of a killer hiding in remote Kootenay Landing. This is a place where, as one character from Bern’s peacekeeping past laments, “nothing is at it seems.”
The reader wonders at times whether Fortin is naïve enough to believe that solving the case before him will somehow also allow him to put the ghosts of his past to bed once and for all. It is a question that will surely follow Fortin into his future endeavours. Collier lists Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire’s autobiography as a research source, and it’s not difficult to see some of the stalwart former soldier in the best of Fortin. Indeed, both men see ghosts when they close their eyes at night and somehow still carry themselves with a quiet grace.
Collier’s writing is clean and clear of purpose, the characters are well rendered, and the dialogue is note perfect. This is a writer in command of her story, and the pacing is just right. It is within the day-to-day moments that Collier does her best work, for example the exchanges between Fortin and Evie, or his elderly neighbour, Mrs. K (who ends up as a witness later on), that move the story forward while also showing us who this man is.
She was perfectly capable of chopping her own wood, of course. She’d done it since she was a child, she’d told him gruffly, and she wasn’t that old. But Bern couldn’t sit by and watch a seventy-year-old woman split firewood.
The ax was waiting for him. It felt good to stretch to his full six feet and three inches. Arms extended and with an effortless swing, he allowed the ax blade to find the spaces between the fibres of wood and slice them clean apart. He chopped enough for one week of winter fires and stacked the logs carefully, close to the back door. The he retrieved the tomato and went inside without knocking …
Confined Space was shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for best unpublished first crime novel by the Crime Writers of Canada -- and will doubtless be a nominee for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel.
Collier does not rush to solve the crime, for it is the journey and not the destination that she seeks. Confined Space is a confident, razor-sharp debut from a writer who deserves everything that’s coming her way.
CB Forrest’s third novel, The Devil’s Dust, is available in stores and online. It has been called “exceptional” by Publisher’s Weekly and “a tour du force“ by Tim Wynne-Jones.